Sunday, March 25, 2012

March 2012: Glenn's review of our 2 night cruise on Norwegian Star

My wife and I got home about an hour ago. Had a great time on the Star. First time on NCL for me. She had cruised NCL once before.

Very impressed with the ship overall. Loved the embarkation process. They have the boarding kiosks ondeck and had multiple entries onto the ship so there were no long lines. They did similar process for debarkation. We just walked right off!! So easy.

We had Balcony cabin 9720. Had everything you needed. Comfortable bed, nice pillows a duvet. I think the closet and drawer space would be a little tight for a 7-night cruise - especially if you were bringing any formal wear. The bathroom setup was the best I had seen on a cruise. The toilet and shower were on opposite sides of the bathroom so if needed, two people could be in there at once. The toilet also has a sliding privacy door. Similar door on the shower which had ample space (I am 6' 4"). I didn't miss the curtain that most other cruise ship showes have. The ones that tend to stick to you like a burrito shell.

Wasn't sure about the "freestyle cruising" approach initially, but I liked it. Would like to take a longer cruise to try more restaurants. We went to Cagney's (had made rerservations online pre-cruise) and it was a great meal. Terrific smoked salmon appetizer and the oysters rockefeller were very good. And the ribeye very delicious. The onboard reservation process looks easy. They had TV screens scattered about the decks so you could see what restaurants were filling up. They also has same info on the TV in your cabin. Went to Versailles for first day lunch and had a great meal. Pasta Bolognese amd Philly Chese Steak. It was nice to have a dining room open on embarkation. That has not been the case on Carnival. Also ate in Versailles for the second night's dinner and had a good meal. Ceasar salad was very nice and crispy - but missing anchovies. Could have asked for them I guess, but since I also had to ask for fresh ground pepper (and that took about 5 minutes), I decided to go without. Had a decent "latin" style sirloin steak. Pretty good seasoning - sort of like a pesto rub. Surprisingly, the worst part of each meal was the potato dishes. French fries at lunch weren't crisp or hot. Potato Gratin at Cagney's were mushy and flavorless. Wedges at Versailles dinner were dry with no seasoning.

Second city comedy shows were very funny. Didn't get to see the other regular shows but people were raving about Elements.

Pool area has some great seating areas. There is also a quiet area (much like Carnival's Serenity) where they have deck chairs and adults-only hot tub.

We did an onboard Pub Crawl event that was alot of fun. We went to 5 bars, had a different drink at each and played some games. The final stop was by the pool deck where they had everyone play a twist on "Simon Says". Last man standing got something - maybe a t-shirt. I wasn't the last person standing.

The ship has alot of music venues. There are two piano players, a guitairist and four other live bands that play at various times and bars. There was a trio in the Atrium that were very good. And the live band they had on the final night for the 70's disco theme was amazing. They were playing earlier in the same lounge with only us and about 5 other people - and played some incredible rock and rolll. The lead guitarist was amazing, able to coax alot of feedback from his Fender Stratocaster. Really talented.

Some negatives:

The main pool area is ill-conceived. The two slides take up alot of deck space and the pool is very small. The slides also aren't meant for adult use. Every adult we saw try to use them couldn't make it all the way down without "scooting". Gave us a few laughs. But for something that takes up that much space, it didn't seem to have enough "fun value".

This cruise ship also had a much larger focus on alcohol consumption than any other I have been on. The cruise director said during his talks, "Drink Heavily". Now I realize that the cruise ships make a lot of revenue from the drinks and it is what keeps cruising inexpensive. But with past and recent concerns about passenger safety, it is irresponsible for a ship's officer to be making a statement like that. At the same time in your cabin, they have a video telling you not to sit on a balcony handrail because you might fall off.
Also, the cruise director staff member Bloody Mary (yes - that is what her nametage said) who lead the Pub Crawl, was visibly drunk before it even started. She was having a hard time keeping track of where we had to go next.

Will I go on another NCL cruise? Yes. Definitely. I had a great time and look forward to trying a long cruise on a different ship. The Star is leaving Tampa in a few weeks, and I think the Dawn is replacing her. So maybe I will look to see what deals come through next year.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

March 2012: RCL Monarch of the Seas

First, I read some of the online reviews and I was a little worried about this ship. It was all for nothing. My great friend M and I had a fantastic time on this short weekend cruise.

Friday afternoon we arrived at Port Canaveral around 130 and quickly boarded the ship. The process was so easy. We stopped by our cabin: 4511. The bed was set up as a king so we called housekeeping. They assured us it would be separated by 3 pm. The first thing we noted was the lack of storage. A small closet and four small drawers were adequate for our 3 night cruise, but not for much longer.

We headed up to the Lido deck for lunch. Food was hot. The hot dog and hamburger buns were hard, but otherwise everything else was pretty good. When we entered out cabin to change, we noticed a note explaining the maitre'd had changed our time for dinner. Oh heck no! We marched up to the dining room trying to find out what the deal was. He acknowledged the mistake and placed us at a larger table. His grace and humor made the experience quite funny.

Then it was pool time. We found two chairs on the second deck, but we were attacked by bugs originating either from the towel or the nearby trash. We quickly got up just in time to go for the muster drill. The crew moved everyone toward the back of the ship even though our muster station was at the front of the ship. It was slightly annoying to have to walk all the way to the back, wait in the traffic jam that created and then walk back to the front of the ship when we got on Deck 7. The muster drill went quickly. I was surprised my fellow passengers were not taking it more seriously given the recent news, but it was clear many of them were well on their way to their first vacation hangover. After the muster drill, we hustled back up to the pool to score two poolside seats.

The cruise staff did a great job creating a party atmosphere with the DJ for the Sail Away Party. My favorite part was they faked a flash mob with dancers coming together on the floor in their regular clothes and no name tags. It was so fun. We listened to the music and when it started to get dark we headed down to get ready.  For dinner, we were at a table for eight, but only two other people showed up for dinner. They were a delightful man and woman in their eighties. We had fun with them. We were impressed with both the food and service at dinner. Post dinner we headed to the Bolero lounge for the piano player. We had the best time singing along with Patrice. He was one of the best sing along piano players I have ever heard. It was fantastic!! A great end to day one.
Day two
We spent the morning at the pool listening to the great band. We headed down to the Dining room for lunch. Again, the food was good. They have a great salad bar where you pick the ingredients and they make you a chopped salad. After lunch, we headed into Nassau. We had a great time walking around and shopping. It was a beautiful sunny day. I really liked we had a long time in port ( 1230 pm - 1130 pm) so we didn't feel rushed. Back on the boat, we spent the afternoon at the pool and then it was off to dinner and the piano bar once again. After closing down the piano bar, we headed up to the deck party. The DJ had it rocking! There was some dancing and some pizza eating. We arrived at the cabin to find a hanging monkey!

Day 3
This was a day of rest. We were not able to dock at CoCo Cay so it became a sea day. We spent the day around the pool and watching movies in the room when the weather turned. We were planning to head back to the piano bar but the ship's rocking sent me to bed early. 

Day 4
Debarkation was easy and quick. We slept in and left our cabin about 915 am to do self assist off the ship.

Overall - I paid $250 per person for the cruise. It was an incredible value and a ton of fun. I would go again in a second. It is the perfect weekend away.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Feb. 2012 Hoop Dee Do Review and The Tangled 5K at Disney World

Last fall, under the spell of hopefulness, my husband and I signed up for the Tangled 5k as part of Disney Princess Half Marathon weekend. Time passed way too quickly and Friday February 24th we found ourselves in the car on the way to Disney. First stop was the Expo to pick up our bibs and t-shirts at the ESPN World of Sports. I was very impressed how smoothly it went. The expo has a nice flow to keep lines moving and we quickly picked up our packet and t-shirt. After the Expo we headed to the Fort Wilderness Campgrounds for the Hoop Dee Doo review - a dinner show.

 I was surprised by the campgrounds. I really felt like I was in a totally different place. The area is heavily wooded. Cabins, RV sites and tent sites make up the lodging. A stable adds to the wilderness feeling.

We took the bus back to Pioneer Hall - home of the show, wagon rides, a restaurant, a bar, a general store and the boat dock. Ferries to the Magic Kingdom leave from here about every half an hour. We got out table assignment and headed over to the bar. After spending the weekend at the River Ranch, we could not stop making comparisons. Wood paneling: check. Stuffed bar in the corner: check. Hay ride: check. Then it was time for the show.

We were led to our table - front row and center. We could touch the stage. Sitting down, a pail of salad and a loaf of cornbread were on the table. I loved the plates and silverware.

 The salad reminded me of Olive Garden. Drinks were included so I tried the sangria and Glenn had a beer. Sangria was very good. The stage coach performers arrived and sang and danced a few very lively, very fun numbers.

 They also went out into the crowd so everyone could share our great view.

 They took a break while the main course was delivered: fried chicken, ribs, mashed potatoes, corn, and baked beans. The fried chicken, ribs and baked beans were good. The mashed potatoes were bland and the corn was normal canned corn. It was all you can eat. The service was quick and plentiful. Our waitress was great. After the main course, there was more singing and dancing. Dessert was strawberry shortcake. It was okay. Best part was at the very end, they handed out washboards and we got to play along.

 Very fun! After the show, we headed to All Star Movies to check in. Saturday we got up at 5 am to get ready. We took the 5:3.0 am bus to the starting line. A DJ was playing to get the crowd warmed up.  A lot of people were in costume. We were pretty excited. 

The sun finally started rising as we lined up in the corrals. It was a little chaotic because the volunteers weren't really directing people to move all the way to the left. Then the race started.

It was a great route. About a mile and a quarter around the parking lot through a side entrance and then into the world showcase. Every quarter mile princesses were ready for a photo op. Jasmine, Belle, Mulan - the gang was all there including Mickey and Donald. We ran under the ball and back out into the parking lot. The race finish was great. They had a good system for medal and gluten free snack box distribution. The one issue was the combination of runners and walkers. It was frustrating to weave through the walkers. Maybe next year they will announce a walk right/run left system. Overall, we had a fantastic time and will definitely do it next year.

After the race, we took the bus back to the All Star and took a nap. Refreshed it was time to head back to Epcot. We hit up Mexico for our favorite Avocado margaritas. We listened to the cover band in England.

Dinner was the Coral Reef restaurant. Overall the food was good and I loved the aquarium. We really liked how the seating was tiered so everyone could get a view.  Here's the play by play of the meal:
Mussels in tomato broth. The broth was slightly underseasoned, but we liked that is played up the sweet flavor profile of the tomato.

Fish Tostadas - These were the best bite of the evening. Great acidity and full of flavor.

Fish of the Day - A White Fish similar to sea bass, but sustainable. It was good, but underseasoned.

Pan Fried Trout - Just missed the mark on seasonsing and the beans. The beans overwhelmed the delicate trout in both texture and volume. Too many beans! Without the beans, the dish worked well with the wilted arugula, bacon and pearl onions.

Overall, we had a very nice dinner. We liked how the seating was tiered so that everyone could have a view of the aquarium. It was fun to see the divers swim by and the shark head our way every few minutes.